Friday 23 January 2015

Elephant & Castle, UK

London's red buses are world-famous.  The capital city of the UK has one of the most intensive bus networks in the world, with around 7,700 vehicles required to operate the network.

Where in London does the highest number of buses converge.  Trafalgar Square?  Piccadilly Circus?  Oxford Street?  In fact, although you will find plenty of buses at each of these locations, there is somewhere else which beats them for the number of buses which pass.

Elephant & Castle is a busy road junction in inner South East London.  It is served by two London Underground lines, one of which terminates here, along with a suburban rail station.  The road system was extensively redeveloped in the 1960s, as was much of the surrounding area.

The densely-populated inner city areas which lie to the south and east of Elephant & Castle are not served well by rail services.  There are, however, large numbers of buses.  No fewer than twenty-nine bus routes converge at Elephant & Castle.

The point at which all twenty-nine routes converge is the northern roundabout (there used to be a southern one too, but the southern junction was remodelled a couple of years ago).  During the morning peak, up to 460 buses enter the roundabout in the space of a single hour.  That is a bus about every 8 seconds.

The bus services

The bus services are coordinated by Transport for London (TfL), to provide a unified network, but the routes are operated by private companies under individual contracts.

Twenty-five of the twenty-nine bus routes serving Elephant & Castle are operated with double-deck vehicles.

Transport for London now require all buses to carry a uniform red livery.  This has applied to new buses since 2011, and the uniform livery is gradually spreading to older vehicles.  Nevertheless, plenty of buses operated by Go-Ahead London currently still carry a red colour scheme relieved by yellow and dark grey.

Bus route 12 is thought to be one of the longest-established bus routes in London, the original service having been introduced over the section of route between Oxford Circus and Peckham as long ago as 1850.

Elephant & Castle takes its name from a pub which once stood at the road junction.  The statue of an elephant and castle is a relic of the area's past - it was originally attached to the pub.


The large billboard with an elephant caught my eye.  Is it a coincidence that it is displayed at Elephant & Castle?

I suspect not.

Elephant & Castle lies on the edge of Central London's congestion charging zone, introduced to deter private motor vehicles from Central London.

The letter 'C' in a red circle on the road surface marks the boundary of the zone.


The blue building in the background of this image is Elephant & Castle's shopping centre, opened in 1965.  It was the first indoor shopping centre to be built in Europe.  Its shops tend to cater to locals and to people passing through, it is not a major destination in its own right. 

As well as Go-Ahead London, several other operators also serve Elephant & Castle.  These companies had adopted the uniform all-red livery before it became mandatory.


Route 136 is a recent arrival at Elephant & Castle, having been extended there in 2014 to address a long-standing overcrowding problem through the densely-populated area between Elephant & Castle and Peckham.


By 2014, most new buses delivered to London were hybrids.  However, a small number of conventional diesel-powered double-deckers were delivered new for route 136 late in the year.

Route 415 is one of ten routes which currently terminate at Elephant & Castle.  There is a proposal to extend the route beyond Elephant & Castle from March 2015, to increase capacity south-eastwards towards Old Kent Road.

At the same time, new hybrid double-deckers will replace the current diesel-powered buses.



The hybrid buses

Hybrid vehicles already operate on several routes serving Elephant & Castle.

Although some carry a small "hybrid" logo on the side, like this one (left), many do not.

Unless you know what to look for, many of the hybrids are indistinguishable from conventional diesel-powered buses.

The single-deck buses

Four routes are operated with single-deck vehicles.  Three of these routes terminate at Elephant & Castle, the exception being route C10.

Conventional diesel-powered buses operate on route C10.

Route P5 is also usually operated with conventional diesel-powered buses.


Route 360, on the other hand, is usually operated with hybrid vehicles.

Hybrids do occasionally put in appearances on route P5.  Conversely, diesel-powered buses sometimes turn up on the 360.  This image shows the latter.

As I write this, route 100 is being restocked with new vehicles.  Although these have entered service with conventional diesel engines it is intended that they will be fitted with flywheels, converting them to hybrid power, in due course.

Route 100 is something of an oddity.  Although bus usage is particularly heavy on the corridors heading south and south-east from Elephant & Castle, the 100 terminates there from the north.  This can only add to the number of passengers interchanging at Elephant & Castle.

The New Routemaster buses

London's buses have been subject to political influences over the years.  One of the more bizarre policies to have been adopted in recent years has been to develop a bespoke new bus for London, seemingly for little reason other than to evoke nostalgic memories of the iconic Routemaster with its hop-on, hop-off open platform at the back.

The resulting vehicle, which is hybrid-powered, has been named the New Routemaster.

During 2014, two routes serving Elephant & Castle received these vehicles.  Route 148 received them first.

To operate with a hop-on, hop-off open platform, the buses require a second member of staff on board, to supervise the open platform.  This adds significant extra cost in operating the vehicle, although the benefit of having the open platform is questionable.

Platform supervisors are employed on New Routemasters, at certain times only, on a small number routes.  However, the routes serving Elephant & Castle are operated entirely without them.  As a result, the buses do not offer the "hop-on, hop-off" open platform which given as the reason for having them.  The rear platform is protected by a door which opens only when the bus is serving a stop.

The second route to bring New Routemasters to Elephant & Castle is the 453.

This busy service had been operated using articulated buses until 2011, when artics were banished from London's bus network.

One of the reasons given for removing articulated buses was the level of fare evasion.  The artics had operated with an "open boarding" arrangement, common in European cities, where passengers could board through any door provided they held a valid ticket.  The "open boarding" arrangement has been brought back on the New Routemasters.  Perhaps it wasn't such a problem after all!

The image below (and the one above) was taken as the New Routemasters were being phased in on route 453.  For a time, the new buses were operating alongside conventional two-door double-deckers.

The different-coloured buses

Although a uniform all-red livery has become mandatory, a number of buses carry commercial advertising liveries.  In most cases, these retain a red front.

There is an exception to the requirement for a red front.  For some reason, the requirement does not apply to the New Routemaster vehicles.

There is another exception.  Transport for London promoted 2014 as the "Year of the Bus". In connection with this, several buses were treated to historical liveries including this one operated by Stagecoach.

This vehicle often works to Elephant & Castle on route 136, although it was not in service when I photographed it.

The interchange hub

Unlike most of the cities I have visited in other countries, London's fare system does not allow for interchange.  A single fare is valid only on one bus.  If your journey requires you to change buses, you are charged again when you board the second bus.  Higher fares apply if you interchange onto the Underground - for a single journey, there is no through ticketing between bus and Underground (or suburban rail, for that matter) in London.

As Elephant & Castle is a major interchange hub, what facilities might you expect to find there?

If you were hoping for a bus station with purpose-built waiting areas sheltered from the elements, or covered walkways to and from the Underground station entrance, you may be disappointed.  No such infrastructure has been provided.  Buses simply pick up and drop off at bus stops on the kerbside, on busy roads.

Bus stop "R" is particularly busy.  This stop is served by twelve bus routes which head south towards Camberwell, Peckham and beyond.  More than 3 million passengers a year board buses at this one stop.

The facilities provided at bus stop "R" are nothing more than one shelter.

It is quite common to see buses jostling for space or queueing as they serve stop "R".

The terminal facilities

With ten routes currently terminating at Elephant & Castle, the buses need somewhere to park until it is time to start their next trip.

Just as there is no dedicated interchange facility for passengers at Elephant & Castle, similarly there is no purpose-built bus parking area.  Buses park on nearby side streets.  There are five designated bus stands scattered around the streets near Elephant & Castle.



At some of the stands, there are no facilities at all for drivers.  At this one, however, a toilet has been provided for bus staff.  It is the small cabin on the kerbside, to the left of the image.

The coaches

In addition to the Transport for London bus network, Elephant & Castle is served by National Express coaches on their way from London to Dover.

As well as the National Express services, coaches from European countries can often be seen passing through Elephant & Castle as they head from the English Channel ports into London.

The cycle hire scheme

Elephant & Castle is within the area served by London's cycle hire scheme.  Strangely, the scheme barely penetrates the area beyond which is poorly served by rail, the very area where it could add particular value.

The subways

As it is a busy road junction, Elephant & Castle is quite a hostile environment for pedestrians and cyclists.

Pedestrians are currently provided for by a network of subways beneath the roads.


Colourful murals on the subway walls deter graffiti.  This one depicts transport which has long since departed from Elephant & Castle.  A tram network had served the streets of South East London until 1952.

In the early years of the 21st Century, there had been plans to build a new tram line serving Elephant & Castle.  These plans were scrapped in 2008 by London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, shortly after he was elected.

The cycle superhighway

For cyclists, the junctions at Elephant & Castle can be a daunting experience.  A cycle route by-passing Elephant & Castle was developed in the 1980s, using quiet side streets.

One of London's "Cycle Superhighways", launched in 2010, has adopted part of the existing cycle by-pass to avoid the busy junctions at Elephant & Castle.

The future

Elephant & Castle is changing.  Already, the southern roundabout has been remodelled.  The northern one will follow later in 2015.  One likely effect of this will be to relocate bus stop "R" to a position which is further from the Underground station and other bus services.  Meanwhile the pedestrian subways will be filled in, replaced by crossings at street level.

The surrounding area is also changing.  Major redevelopments are happening, the largest being the demolition of the 1970s-era Heygate housing estate and its replacement with new housing. 

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